these challenging first years of the 21st century, most travel
professionals are too busy coping with the industry's ever-shifting
revenue models to be paying much notice to space tourism.
As for potential
passengers, the U.S. government's dwindling interest in space
travel since first planting a flag on the moon in 1969 has resigned
most Americans to the notion that commercial space travel will
never be a reality in their lifetimes.
But it turns out
the industry and the traveling public are both about to get a
In the last year,
entrepreneurial commercial enterprises have snatched a ball that
since the days of Sputnik have been carried by a handful of the
world's wealthiest and most powerful nations. In a matter of a few
months, they have begun generating crucial momentum for
establishing a fledgling space-travel industry.
That promises to
eventually be very good for business. The day is already at hand
when a small but widening circle of travel agents is poised to
seize rapidly growing space-travel opportunities.
already lists 24 space tourism companies. But in reality, there are
just four players with advanced business plans, and only two of
those are already selling seats on spacecraft:
Adventures Ltd.: This is the early pioneer of the
industry, and its products are the real deal: a complete astronaut
experience, including more than a week in orbit. Unlike the
independent commercial startups, its business model is built around
thumbing rides on flights already scheduled by the Russian Space
Agency. Despite a $20 million price tag, Space Adventures is
currently preparing to launch its fifth space tourist.
Galactic: Richard Branson, founder of the Virgin empire of
travel and entertainment enterprises, is diving headlong into space
tourism. His new company, Virgin Galactic, earlier this year named
Virtuoso as its exclusive network of space agents in the U.S., and
117 Virtuoso members have already applied. Virgin plans to vet the
list in January and choose 50 for training, beginning next March,
in preparation for the company's first suborbital flights in late
Origin: A space travel company started by Amazon founder
Jeff Bezos, Blue Origin is building a spaceport facility on a
165,000-acre spread in west Texas.
Corp.: This private space tourism firm, based in Temecula,
N.M., plans to launch civilians on suborbital flights from
Florida's Cape Canaveral Air Force Base through an agreement with
"Space tourism is
already definitely a part of the business reality of our
consultants," said Mark Belles, executive vice president of global
sales and service for Virtuoso. "With Virgin Galactic's
announcement that it will be sending people up into space in late
2008, we already have a queue of member consultants and a list of
clients and prospects."
Galactic has taken deposits from 200 customers for those first
suborbital flights in 2008, according to Carolyn Wincer, head of
astro sales for Virgin Galactic.
The flights are
priced at $200,000, and while the Virgin package is a suborbital
joyride compared with the full orbital treks offered by Space
Adventures, Virgin's price is a mere 1% of Space Adventures' $20
million ticket price.
That kind of price
reduction is essential to meet Branson's goal for Virgin Galactic
of bringing space travel to the masses. Until now, Space
Adventures' customers have comprised a highly elite corps of
extremely wealthy individuals.
For example, the
passenger who returned from its most recent trip in September was
Anousheh Ansari, a wealthy Iranian technology entrepreneur. Ansari,
Space Adventures' first female customer, was also the sponsor of
the $10 million Ansari X Prize for the first nongovernment
organization to launch a reusable, manned spacecraft twice within
next passenger is slated to be Charles Simonyi, the Hungarian-born billionaire software engineer responsible
for developing Microsoft Word and Excel. Like Ansari, Simonyi will hitch a ride on a Russian Soyuz rocket
scheduled to service the International Space Station.
Such flights are
possible every six months, when the Russian Space Agency launches a
replacement crew to the ISS, leaving room for one extra passenger.
Space Adventures sells the seat, and the $20 million price tag
helps to fund the U.S./Russia space program.
As the ultimate in
high-end travel products, it also whets the appetite of the
incipient space-tourism industry.
price collapse lends credence to the
assertion of Space Adventures' president, Eric Anderson, that the
company's products will rapidly grow beyond the ultimate
amusement-park ride for the super rich.
"Every time we
change history it starts this way," Anderson said. "The first
computers were very expensive, the first automobiles,
passengers, he said, "are paving the way for the rest of
was the budget-busting space programs of the U.S. and Russia in the
late '60s and early '70s that generated the very technology that
today is enabling consumer space flights.
For example, the
first computers built in the late 1940s and 1950s were room-sized
assemblages of finicky vacuum tubes and cables that cost millions
of dollars, broke down frequently and required constant
maintenance. But the integrated circuits developed for the U.S.
space program quickly gave rise to Moore's Law, a Silicon Valley
axiom, which predicts that the processing power embedded in a given
volume of silicon will double every 12 to 18 months.
As a result,
today's average cell phone boasts far more computing power than the
Apollo Guidance Computer that landed astronauts on the moon in the
1970s. And according to the BBC's archives, the first digital
watch, produced by Hamilton in 1972, sold for $2,150; superior
digital watches now can be had for less than $5.
Moore's Law of commercial aerospace technology eventually might
prove to be, space tourism has developed much more rapidly than
anyone had expected as recently as a few years ago.
A major driver of
that development was the X Prize, which was intended to spur
civilian space flight in much the same way that prizes were used to
spur commercial aviation in the early 20th century. The winning
ship had to carry a pilot and the equivalent weight of two
passengers to an altitude of 62 statue miles, the internationally
recognized boundary where the Earth's atmosphere ends and space
The prize was
snagged on Oct. 4, 2004, by SpaceShipOne, a suborbital craft
piloted by Brian Binnie, owned by Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen's
Mojave Aerospace Ventures, designed by the renowned aerospace
innovator Bert Rutan and constructed by Rutan's company, Scaled
carried to an altitude of 35,000 feet by White Knight, a jet
aircraft slightly larger than a Boeing 757, then continued its
ascent under its own rocket power. It succeeded in making two trips
into space within seven days, reaching an altitude of 71.5
watching the progress closely. Even before SpaceShipOne actually
took the X Prize, he had cut a deal with Allen to license the
technology for his newly created Virgin Galactic.
Now, Branson is
investing $250 million to develop SpaceShipTwo, a more ambitious
version of the craft that won the X Prize. Fuel-efficient and
environmentally friendly, it will carry two pilots and six
passengers into suborbital space and back to its point of
departure. It will be carried aloft by WhiteKnightTwo, an improved
version of White Knight.
SpaceShipTwo is not
just bigger than its predecessor, however. It also incorporates
many extra technologies and design elements to ensure passenger
safety and comfort.
The new versions of
both craft are already under construction at the Scaled Composites
facility in the Mojave Spaceport in California, where they are
scheduled for completion in late 2007. Following testing,
commercial flights are projected to begin in late 2008 or early
2009 from Virgin's new Spaceport America in New Mexico.
The First Space Tourists
plan is as ambitious as his technology: In the first year, Virgin
Galactic plans to carry about 500 people into space and back.
Despite the inroads made by Vienna, Va.-based Space Adventures,
many see these early suborbital flights by independent commercial
ventures as heralding the real dawn of space tourism.
has been around awhile," said Virgin Galactic's Wincer. "They make
it possible for people to go with the Russian space program.
They're not a space tour operator; they just facilitate it. There
isn't anyone operating space tourism. It hasn't been
But, she added that
"when SpaceShipOne won the X Prize, it all changed."
got the jump on competitors through a public-private partnership
with the Russian and U.S. space programs. Although Space Adventures
does not actually plan or operate trips into space, that
partnership has enabled Space Adventures to offer products far
beyond anything available from the private sector in the near
come down to orbital vs. suborbital experiences.
The $20 million
product offered by Space Adventures, which sent its first tourist
into orbit in 2001, is eight to 10 days of continuous
weightlessness in Earth orbit. The trip includes the
experiences of docking the Soyuz craft with the ISS, then living
and working aboard the space station with its crew of astronauts
$200,000 suborbital flights, in contrast, will offer six passengers
about seven minutes of black-sky space flight and about four
minutes of weightlessness. In all, the price covers a three-day
package that includes hotel, training and transportation to and
from the spaceport, all conjured with a focus on personal
Both companies have
ambitious plans for evolving well beyond their initial products.
Virgin has announced that it intends to leverage the experience it
gains in suborbital flights to expand into low-orbit products and
ultimately to create the world's first spaceline carrier, using
suborbital space flights to get passengers from any point on the
planet to any other point in a matter of minutes rather than
For its part, Space
Adventures announced in August that it was working on a lunar
program -- a "slingshot around the moon" in the words of Stacy
Tearne, the company's vice president of operations -- "using the
Soyuz Russian rocket, which will be revamped to be able to fly to
"It's not a lunar
surface mission," Tearne noted. "It's a circumlunar
seats will be available on the lunar trip, Tearne said, at a $100
said it also had more than 200 reservations for a suborbital
product priced at $102,000, and zero-gravity flights in NASA
training jets for as low as $3,750. The company already offers
zero-gravity flights out of Fort Lauderdale and Russia.
Even at the lowest
of those prices, of course, there is enormous opportunity for
travel professionals to earn plum commissions and consulting
"Space tourism is a
reality," said Cathy Holler, Virtuoso's managing director of
destination sales. "Now that a private company has been able to
send a rocket into space, it is coming. It has been $20 million to
go to space. It's a very different experience to what you get at
$200,000. But people will find a way, because it's a
are gambling that space tourism will evolve into a dream
Branson has already
ordered five spaceships and two mother ships based on the original
is well under way," Wincer said. "We'll be rolling out the first in
fall 2007. Everything is on track. People will see the rollout and
say, 'Oh my God! It's not a lot of hot air. It's really happening!'
Virgin will conduct
test flights for 12 to 18 months, with passenger flights commencing
"only when they are confident in the technology and the safety,"
Wincer said. "Richard [Branson] is going on the first flight with
his family. Once that has happened, we'll start carrying
fare-paying passengers. We already have 200 deposits."
As the first
totally independent commercial space travel venture, Virgin
Galactic is moving the bar significantly.
"These are the
first private ventures," said Virtuoso's Holler. "The spaceship has
gone up and come back. It's been the catalyst for the opportunity
for personal space flight. It's more affordable. We're taking it
from the governmental space-exploration environment to the
commercial space-tourism environment."
As Virgin took its
first step into space travel, the company was acutely conscious
that it was laying the foundation of a new industry. As a pioneer in a new market,
the company could have employed the flashiest cutting-edge
technologies for booking, perhaps kiosks in malls with virtual
Instead it chose
high-touch over high-tech.
"We recognized we
were creating an industry from scratch," said Wincer, who was
charged with handling sales of the new product. "We had a unique
opportunity to figure out how to distribute to clients."
She said she
instinctively knew exactly which direction to take.
"I come from a
travel industry background," Wincer said. "I started working as a
travel agent as a teenager. I realized we needed to work with
travel agents. We wanted them involved. When you book space travel,
you're going to want to talk to someone. It's unusual, like in the
old days when travel was a glamorous thing to do."
At the same time,
she said, "We realized you can't just pay everyone travel agent
commission. If you let everyone sell the product, and the product
is unique, you lose quality control. You lose the ability to know
what is communicated to customers. So we flipped everything the
other way. We're going to go to each location looking for space
When Virgin started
setting up its sales organization, it approached Virtuoso, a
consortium that had worked with Virgin on both its airline ticket
sales and its Virgin Limited Edition hotels and resorts.
proposals from individual applicants explaining why they thought
they had the right client base for space tourism, why they wanted
to get into the field and how they would go about promoting
people who are really passionate partners in making it happen,"
Wincer said. "The network will grow."
said his members were clearly the right professionals for the
"We pride ourselves
on our sales force of consultants, the best sales force in world
for experiential travel," Belles said. "One of the reasons Virgin
sought us out to get into the market in the U.S. is the history of
our sales force being able to sell experiential travel to
"Our agents do a
fantastic job of matching clients to unique experiences, whether
renting Richard Branson's private island for multigenerational
travel or space travel. We have a proven history."
Holler added: "One
of the exciting things for Virtuoso is having the opportunity,
being charged with helping to set up a new tourism product. How do
we manage the relationship? We're setting the standards for the
future companies that go into this business. We'll do it
professionally and ensure that the first generation of space
tourism will be done correctly.
"We're carving a
new territory, a new frontier."
contact reporter David Cogswell, send e-mail to [email protected].